Chicago: four moods and Chinese food

July 5, 2014 • 4:15 am

Here are four photos of downtown Chicago I’ve taken from my crib over the last two weeks. The weather has been variable, and I’ve taken them in storm, sun, sunrise, and sunset.

Storm coming:

Chicago 1

After-storm fog; Lake Michigan is still cold from winter, causing fog when the air is warm.

Chicago 2

Sunrise yesterday:

Chicago 3

Sunrise this morning:

Chicago 4

And, at the end, there’s lagniappe: a bowl of mapo dofu (“Pock-marked Ma’s Bean Curd”) from the Lao Sze Chuan restaurant, one of my favorites in Chicago. This was only one dish in a meal with friends, but I was so famished that I forgot to photograph the other plates before nomming. I asked for ground pork to be added, as is traditional in Chengdu, Szechuan, where I had this dish at the very restaurant where it was invented.

This is a classic Szechuan dish, very hot with peppers, but is best served only slightly warm in temperature, just a tad above ambient (I like the leftovers). It’s made with tofu, scallions, a variety of spices, red chiles, and, most important, the fragrant Szechuan peppercorns, hua jiao. Somehow the ones the restaurant gets are better than the ones I can buy at the Chinese grocery.

mapo dofu

12 thoughts on “Chicago: four moods and Chinese food

  1. Do you mean to tell us that there is Chinese food other than meat and vegetables stir fried in brown sauce? Next, you will say that there is Mexican food other than greasy Tex-Mex.

  2. Could be the hua jiao are the same ones as the grocer has but the cook in the restaurant is doing something to them but not telling you.

    1. No, they can’t do anything to them: they’re like hard, dried, berries. It seems that the ones the restaurant uses are simply more fragrant than the ones I buy, and you can tell that from the dish. It could be that they’re fresher, or that the restaurant simply has a better source.

      I have to say though that I do make a mean mapo dofu.

      1. Any chance you’d be willing to share your recipe?

        I generally soak some black beans (douchi) in sherry, mash them into a paste, and then mix in crushed hot Chinese peppers, fresh-ground hua jiao, homemade chicken broth, soy sauce, and some not-mashed black beans. The tofu marinates in that while I mince up garlic and ginger and slice up some green onions. Then, I stir-fry ground pork, remove the pork to the sauce / tofu bowl, briefly cook the garlic and ginger, add the sauce / tofu / pork, and cover for a few minutes. I might or might not bind it with starch, but I always add the green onions and a good drizzle of sesame oil just before serving.

        I’d be really interested to know how you do it….


  3. I used to go Chicago just for Chinese food. If you eat in a famous sichuan restaurant , Normally the “hua jiao” should be from Sichuan directly, since Chinese “hua jiao” is different from black pepper, and Sichuan “hua jiao” is much more stronger than “hua jiao” from regular “hua jiao”. When I went to zoo in Chengdu on a weekday, there were more than 10 pandas on display and I was the only visitor! :))

  4. I like Chinese food but I avoid it now because the use of MSG gives me a wicked migraine within about 8 hours of consuming it. I went to a Chinese mall in Toronto (Pacific Mall) and managed to find a Japanese restaurant to eat at after much searching.

  5. I love mapo tofu! But I am more used to the Japanese variant. I am not sure what the exact difference is, maybe the spice/paste they use … ? We made it often in Japan, and still do now. We had one once in a restaurant in chinatown in San Francisco; but even though the restaurant was recommended to us by the Chinese owners of the hotel where were staying, the restaurant and its mapo tofu were a disappointment …

  6. Oh that looks great.

    When I was in Chicago last week I was dying to go to the Mexican restaurant Jerry posted about a while back. However I was with my son who has a peanut allergy (and they used peanuts in the kitchen of that restaurant), which rather severely limits the options for “foodie adventures.”

    I”ll have to try Chicago again some time and re-visit Jerry’s noms posts.

  7. You can toast hua jiao in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant (45 seconds or so). This makes them nuttier and releases essential oils increasing their flavor. Also, Penzey’s spices has the best hua jiao I’ve had. In general Penzey’s is where I go for all my spices…esp. dried chilies…simply the best.

  8. Professor, perhaps I watch too much television, but is it not possible for some sufficiently motivated individual to use the photos you’ve taken over time to find where you live?

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